BEIRUT — Hundreds of barefoot worshippers fled in panic as powerful explosions struck two packed mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, killing at least 29 people, wounding hundreds and marking a sharp deterioration of the security situation in the fragile Middle Eastern country.
The coordinated car bombs detonated outside two Sunni mosques in the port city during Friday prayers, their busiest time. The attacks occurred just hours after Israeli warplanes bombed an extremist base in the south.
The coordinated attacks in the predominantly Sunni city — the deadliest fallout from Syria’s civil war to hit Lebanon — raised sectarian tensions amid fears the country was slipping into a prolonged cycle of revenge.
The blasts were clearly intended to cause maximum damage, timed to go off at midday Friday outside the Taqwa and Salam mosques, which are known to be filled with worshippers at that time on the Muslim day of prayer.
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“Lebanon has officially entered the regional war, which has been raging in Syria and Iraq,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“There are serious fears that the country has entered a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat explosions and car bombs. A dynamic of violence and reprisals, once set in, is hard to reverse,” she said.
Indeed, the explosions heightened concerns that Lebanon is entering an era of retaliatory Sunni versus Shiite attacks that target civilians. Eight days earlier, a car bomb killed 27 people in a Shiite suburb of Beirut, a support base for the Lebanese extremist movement Hezbollah, in the country’s deadliest blast since the 1980s.
Lebanese TV stations showed huge plumes of smoke rising from the explosion sites Friday, as the dead and injured were carried from the rubble-strewn streets.
The escalation comes as the war in neighboring Syria is intensifying friction between Sunnis and Shiites across the region and as Lebanon struggles to remain stable despite a vacuum in government and an army that is outgunned by Hezbollah.
The Shiite group ramped up tensions further when it proclaimed in May its unstinting support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against a largely Sunni opposition.
In the aftermath of Friday’s blasts, residents marched in protest through the streets of Tripoli and gunmen attacked an army checkpoint there, according to a Lebanese army commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Their first angry reaction was against the Lebanese army,” he said. Some Sunni factions have accused the army of being under Hezbollah’s influence.
Tripoli, 50 miles north of Beirut, has a reputation as Lebanon’s most volatile city and the one where the country’s sectarian fault lines are most pronounced. Sunni gunmen there regularly battle the city’s small community of Alawites, who are an offshoot of the Shiite sect and coreligionists of Assad.
“There is no state. This is the state of Hassan Nasrallah,” a bloodied victim told LBCI television from his hospital bed, referring to Hezbollah’s leader.
No one had claimed responsibility for the Tripoli bombings, but many observers pointed out that preachers at both mosques are outspoken opponents of the Syrian government and had urged Lebanese to go to Syria to fight against Hezbollah and Assad’s forces.
In a statement, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, blamed the “hand of criminality” for the bombings, which he described as “a clear message aimed to plant strife.” Hezbollah also condemned the bombings and expressed “utmost solidarity” with the people of Tripoli.
Earlier Friday, Israel said it had bombed an extremist group’s base in Lebanon in response to the firing of four rockets across its northern border Thursday. It was Israel’s first airstrike inside Lebanon since its 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.